• Shortgrass prairie in South Dakota Credit: T. Livieri/Prairie Wildlife Research

The Praire Ecosystem

The North American Prairie

There are three types of prairies in North America: the tallgrass, shortgrass and mixed grass prairies. They are unique ecosystems dominated by grasses and forbs. Their nutrient rich soils allow a variety of plants to grow, thus providing habitat for over 20,000 species of animals. The tallgrass prairie is found in the Midwest and is classified as a globally threatened ecosystem. The shortgrass and mixed grass prairies make up what is called the Great Plains, which is the primary habitat of the black-footed ferret.

The Great Plains

The Great Plains encompasses over 502,000 square miles. Parts of Saskatchewan make up the northernmost region, and Texas and northern Mexico make up the southernmost region. It extends from the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Midwest. Parts of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming make up the Great Plains. It is a semi-arid climate, accumulating less the 20 inches of precipitation annually. Summers tend to be hot and winters can be quite cold. Strong winds are common on the prairie.

  • Prickly Pear Cactus Credit: T. Livieri/Prairie Wildlife Research

Plants of the Prairie

Due to the semi-arid conditions, plants that thrive in this ecosystem have long, extensive underground root networks. This root system allows the plants to reach water deep underground, and anchors them during the strong winds. Over 10,000 species of plants such as yucca, prickly pear cactus, sage and buffalograss are found in the Great Plains.

  • Badger. Credit: T. Livieri/ Prairie Wildlife Research

Animals of the Prairie

Over 20,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects are native to the Great Plains. Over 100 species live there and nowhere else. Pronghorn, prairie chickens, sage grouse, burrowing owls, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are among the many animals endemic to the Great Plains. Prior to European settlement, large herds of bison and elk roamed the prairie, along with wolves, grizzly bears and bobcats.

  • Black-tailed prairie dog Credit: T. Livieri/Prairie Wildlife Research

Prairie Dogs

There are five species of prairie dogs; black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah and Mexican. The Utah prairie dog is listed as threatened and the Mexican prairie dog is endangered.

Prairie dogs play an important ecological role in the Great Plains and in desert grasslands (Utah, Arizona and New Mexico). They are considered a keystone species. Their digging activities disturb and aerate the soil which allows annual grasses and forbs to become established. Their eating habits promote short, perennial grass growth. In fact, it has been shown that bison and cattle prefer to graze on or near prairie dog towns.

Many animals are associated with prairie dog towns. Ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, great horned owls, coyotes, swift foxes and badgers all prey upon prairie dogs. Cottontails and many small rodents and insects use prairie dog burrows for shelter. And as mentioned above, bison and cattle as well as pronghorn graze on the nutritious grasses found in prairie dog towns.

Three animal species in particular are very closely associated with prairie dogs and depend on them for survival. These are the mountain plover, burrowing owl and black-footed ferret. Mountain plovers nest and forage above ground on the short grasses in prairie dog towns, burrowing owls depend on burrows for nests and to rear their young, and black-footed ferrets prey almost exclusively upon prairie dogs and live in their vacant burrows. For these animals to survive in the wild, there must be large, healthy prairie dog colonies.

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